Right now, I'm reading Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut. It's about how 1,000,000 years in the future, humans have evolved (or devolved) into something more like walruses: our hands have morphed into flippers, we eat a diet that consists mostly of fish, and our brains have decreased in size dramatically. Throughout the story, Vonnegut points out many of the ways that our gigantic brains get us into trouble (or rather, got us into trouble). As a human, I am equipped with a mind capable of doing all sorts of things that are at best useless, and at worst downright counterproductive. I can convince myself of things that aren't true. I can have self-destructive tendencies. I can form emotional bonds that have more influence over my behavior than my desire to survive. But perhaps best of all, I can try to understand things I have no business understanding. I can stretch my mind beyond myself, and explore the entire universe in a way my dog never will.
William Hazlett said: "man is the only animal that laughs and weeps, for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are and what they ought to be."
My brain isn't a spectacular example of our species' capacity. I'm no Einstein, breaking new ground on the frontiers of our knowledge, but I enjoy trying to squeeze big ideas into my tiny head. Remember a while back when I confessed my fascination with the largest numbers yet discovered? The first time I read that article --blam-- my mind was blown to smithereens, and my brain was liquefied, and it dribbled out my ears like pink GoGurt out of the tube. A week later, I re-read the article, and this time my mind held together slightly better. Well it's been a few months, and just when I thought I was comfortable with the scale of those numbers --blam again-- and thus the cycle of mind-explosion and brain-melt repeats itself. I'll never be comfortable with the sheer, utter, astonishing vastness of the universe, but then again anyone who claims they are comfortable with it is either a genius like we've never seen, or simply isn't trying very hard.
Here are a few pieces of mind dynamite I've stumbled across recently:
First, there's this remarkable sliding scale of the universe. You can effortlessly scroll between the tiniest subatomic particles and the largest galaxies. Ask yourself, where does your actual comprehension of the objects give way to sheer imagination?
And this is kind of similar, but also effective:
See now I'm comfortable with the size of the sun compared to the size of the earth (kind of). When I was a kid we created a scale model of the solar system, whereby a marble represented the Earth, a basketball represented Jupiter, and a giant chalk outline on the soccer field represented the sun. The fact that there are single stars big enough to shove the whole model down by oh, about four orders of magnitude (making the sun the marble?!) is a bit much for my tiny fragile human brain to contain.
Also, we've discovered another planet that is likely to support a rich atmosphere and liquid water.
Also, we've discovered huge amounts of ice on Mars.
Also, we've discovered a black hole that is, ahem: 37-billion times as massive as our own sun.
Ok. Enough dorking out for one morning.